Sonny Boy’s Journey Home

parts of this story adapted from a contribution from Karen Dooley
photos courtesy of Karen Dooley

This December 7 will be very special to Karen Dooley’s family. Her uncle, Charles Louis “Sonny Boy” Saunders will finally be laid to rest, 80 years after his death in the attack on Pearl Harbor. 

Karen, who lives in Georgetown, was inspired by her aunt Anna Belle, Sonny Boy’s younger sister, to share the story about the man who will be arriving at his hometown of Winnie, Texas. 

“He left us at age 17,” Karen says, “and didn’t get to leave a memory in the family he would have had. Happily, my aunt inspired me to do more and more research to find out about my family in the past.” Karen exudes much pride talking about her aunt and cousins’ efforts to hold on to remnants of family history. “My parents died young and we just didn’t know what to look for so, for me, it was a great treasure hunt for memories.” 

“SONNY BOY”

Sonny Boy and Anna Bell in 1932

Sonny Boy was born to Mortimer and Melina on October 16, 1923. He was a very caring, kind, and playful child growing up. In fact, his family says, his decision to join the Navy one month after his 17th birthday was just one example of his character; a strong desire to serve his country but an even greater desire to help his family. 

Times were difficult, of course,  growing up in the Great Depression. Mortimer worked in construction and in rice fields to support the family while Melina raised their children. 

Karen recalls, “Anna Belle said her brother would always do without so she could have shoes to make the daily walk to school. He could not bear to see his little sister struggle in any manner.” He was playful with his younger brother, Karen’s father, and fooled him into believing his belly button was a scar from being shot in the belly with an arrow. 

IN THE NAVY

Sonny Boy served as Seaman, Second Class on the USS Oklahoma at Pearl Harbor on Ford Island in Hawaii. He was one of 429 sailors and marines killed in port when the Oklahoma was attacked by Japanese forces December 7, 1941. He was posthumously awarded a Purple Heart for Military Merit and three ribbons: American Defense, American Campaign, and Asiatic Pacific Campaign. 

Karen says Anna Belle never lost her passion to bring her brother home and, until the last day of her life, she clung to that hope. She always felt a responsibility for his death because his desire to enlist was grounded in his desire to make life better for his family during hard times. 

As Sonny Boy’s last living sibling, Anna Belle was committed to laying him to rest at the grave site their parents prepared for him at the Fairview Cemetery in Winnie. Records indicate Mortimer ordered Sonny Boy’s headstone on September 30, 1964 (photo). It was written in her obituary in 2019 that she was certain her advocacy to bring her brother home after so many years would be continued by all who survive her. 

SCIENCE STEPS IN

From July 1942 to May 1944 the Oklahoma was prepared for righting and re-floating. Sonny Boy was one of 390 service members recovered from the ship by divers and salvaging crews. All were initially buried at the Halawa and Nu’uanu Cemeteries. 

In September 1947, the American Graves Registration Service moved all the remains to the Schofield Barracks Central Identification Laboratory to confirm identifications and return them to their families. 

In 2015, the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) received authorization to exhume the unknown remains of the servicemen of the USS Oklahoma. They re-examined them using advanced forensic technology, then contacted Anna Belle, who gathered and provided DNA from family members to make a positive identification. 

On February 11, 2021, the DPAA notified relatives that the remains of Seaman Second Class Charles Louis Saunders had been identified. Scientists had used dental and anthropological analysis as well as mitochondrial and autosomal DNA analysis. These analyses and the totality of circumstantial evidence available positively indicated Sonny Boy’s remains.

AT REST

Karen and the rest of Sonny Boy’s family are certain his journey began with a dedication to his family and his country, and his service included laughter and adventure. They are comforted and thankful to think he more than likely perished while helping others. Most of all, the many nieces and nephews of this genuine hero are grateful to welcome him back to Texas to be buried next to his parents.

Karen is also grateful for the many people and organizations that have come together for a funeral with full military honors. The family is working with government officials to provide a marble slab to raise the headstone from the soft South Texas earth, and she and her sister Jackie have received clearance to meet the military plane as it arrives at George Bush Intercontinental Airport. Freedom Riders will escort Sonny Boy to Winnie where the funeral home and local veteran groups are hosting media representatives to promote this viral-worthy story. 

After the service, family members from all over Texas, and as far as Minnesota, Colorado, and Washington are eager to gather, reacquaint, and enjoy attendant events. With so much research to share—as far back as five generations—Karen has prepared a giant piece of butcher paper for all the family members to sign and she is looking forward to the finished product; a personally created and signed family tree. 

At the end of it all, she hopes their story will continue to inspire, “There are young people like Sonny Boy who are out there right now making us proud; demonstrating that loving our country is the right thing to do.” 

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